The Noble Savage
by David Deming
by David Deming: Animadversions
The late Joseph
Campbell maintained that civilizations are not based on science,
but on myth. "Aspiration," Campbell explained, "is the motivator,
builder, and transformer of civilization." Our technological society
has been built on Francis Bacon's myth of the New Atlantis.
Bacon was the first person to unambiguously and explicitly advocate
the practical application of scientific knowledge to human needs.
"The true and lawful goal of the sciences," he explained, "is that
human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers." Writing
in the early seventeenth century, Francis Bacon predicted lasers,
genetic engineering, airplanes, and submarines.
Bacon's vision of a society based on science is the older and more
persistent fable of the Noble Savage. The Noble Savage is not a
person, but an idea. It is cultural primitivism, the belief of people
living in complex and evolved societies that the simple and primitive
life is better. The Noble Savage is the myth that man can live in
harmony with nature, that technology is destructive, and that we
would all be happier in a more primitive state.
Christ lived, the Noble Savage was known to the Hebrews as the Garden
of Eden. The Greek poet Hesiod (c. 700 BC) called it the Golden
Age. In the lost Golden Age, people lived in harmony with nature.
There was no disease, pain, work, or conflict. Everyone lived in
perfect peace. Insects didn't bite you. There were no extremes of
temperature, and you could wander naked through the fields. If you
happened to be hungry, all you had to do to satisfy your craving
was reach up and pick a sumptuous ripe fruit off a nearby tree.
In all the
ages of the world, otherwise intelligent and learned persons have
swooned to cultural primitivism. In the sixteenth century, French
writer Michel de Montaigne described native Americans as so morally
pure they had no words in their languages for lying, treachery,
avarice, and envy. Montaigne portrayed the primitive life as so
idyllic that American Indians did not have to work but could spend
the whole day dancing.
James Cook and other European explorers first encountered the native
people of Polynesia in the late eighteenth century, they romanticized
the primitive and ignorant state as a happier one, free of cares
and anxieties. It was better, one European wrote, to be simple-minded
and ignorant. "We must admit," he explained, "that the child is
happier than the man, and that we are losers by the perfection of
our nature, the increase of our knowledge, and the enlargement of
exposition of the Noble Savage myth is found in Jean-Jacques Rousseau's
on Inequality (1755). Rousseau argued that what appeared
to be human progress was in fact decay. The best condition for human
beings to live in was the "pure state of nature" in which savages
existed. When men lived as hunters and gatherers, they were "free,
healthy, honest and happy." The downfall of man occurred when people
started to live in cities, acquire private property, and practice
agriculture and metallurgy. The acquisition of private property
resulted in inequality, aroused the vice of envy, and led to perpetual
conflict and unceasing warfare. According to Rousseau, civilization
itself was the scourge of humanity. Rousseau went so far as to make
the astonishing claim that the source of all human misery was what
he termed our "faculty of improvement," or the use of our minds
to improve the human condition.
a copy of his book to Voltaire. In a letter acknowledging receipt
of the work, Voltaire made a pithy and devastating criticism. "I
have received, monsieur, your new book against the human race. I
thank you for it...no one has ever employed so much intellect in
the attempt to prove us beasts. A desire seizes us to walk on four
paws when we read your work. Nevertheless, as it is more than sixty
years since I lost the habit, I feel, unfortunately, that it is
impossible for me to resume it."
insight was immediate and inerrant: opposition to technology is
opposition to the human race itself. Man lives by technology. The
human race has never existed in a state of harmony with nature.
Since Rousseau wrote, more than two hundred and fifty years of archeological
and ethnographic research have shown that the imaginative conceptions
associated with the Noble Savage are completely wrong. Before the
advent of civilization people endured disease, violence, hunger,
and profound poverty.
When I was
growing up in the 1960s, the common notion was that humans are the
only animal that conducts warfare. But research over the past few
decades has shown that this is false. In Demonic
Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, Richard Wrangham
and Dale Peterson documented observations of chimpanzees in their
natural habitat engaging in systematic planned violence. Humans
and chimpanzees diverged from a common ancestor about four to six
million years ago. The fact that chimpanzees make war suggests that
our human ancestors also did. The roots of human violence thus lay
deep in time.
conduct raids with the intent of catching a lone male from another
group. If the odds in their favor are greater than three-to-one,
they will attack and kill or maim him. The attacks are vicious and
merciless, "marked by a gratuitous cruelty." The preferred procedure
is for two chimps to hold a victim on the ground while a third pummels
and bites the prey until he is dead or mortally wounded. The aggressors
enjoy the violence. After the attack has concluded they exhibit
their exuberance by branch-waving, screaming, hooting, and drumming.
male rivals bestows a reproductive advantage on the members of the
attacking group. Chimpanzee behavior is calculated and organized,
not incidental, and reveals a high degree of intelligence. Chimpanzees
have been known to rape their own sisters. Other human relatives
also share a disposition to violence. Rape is commonplace among
orangutans, and about one-seventh of gorilla babies perish from
advent of human civilization, conflict between bands of hunter-gatherers
was universal and intense. In his book Constant
Battles, Harvard archeologist Steven A. Leblanc documented
that "warfare in the past was pervasive and deadly." Cannibalism
and infanticide were also common. Ethnographic studies of hunter-gatherer
groups surviving in remote areas of the world during the twentieth
century have found that about twenty-five percent of adult males
perish in war. LeBlanc concluded "the common notion of humankind's
blissful past, populated with noble savages living in a pristine
and peaceful world, is held by those who do not understand our past
and who have failed to see the course of human history for what
Industrial Revolution, disease and poverty were endemic, even in
the most advanced societies. Infectious diseases, including typhus,
smallpox, and malaria, were rampant. Intestinal worms and dysentery
were common among all classes of people. In eighteenth century Europe,
half of all children died before their tenth birthday. Life expectancy
at birth was only about twenty-five years, virtually unchanged from
the days of the Roman Empire. Filth and dirt were everywhere. In
1741, Samuel Johnson gave a speech in Parliament where he complained
that the streets of London were "obstructed by mountains of filth."
pre-industrial civilizations live in a state of ecological harmony
with their environment. Their exploitation of nature was often destructive.
The Mediterranean islands colonized by the ancient Greeks were transformed
into barren rock by overgrazing and deforestation. The Bay of Troy,
described in Homer's Iliad, has been filled in by sediment
eroded from hillsides destabilized by unsustainable agricultural
arrive, American Indians managed the land aggressively by burning
it. And they likely hunted several animals to extinction. The disappearance
of the Pleistocene
Megafauna in the Americas coincides with the expansion of human
settlement about 10,000 years before present. The long list of animals
hunted to extinction by American Indians include dire wolves, giant
sloths, saber-toothed cats, giant beavers, mastodons, and mammoths.
Even the conception
of primitive societies as egalitarian is flawed. In Sick
Societies, anthropologist Robert Edgerton documented that
all human societies make distinctions based on "sex, age, and ability."
Groups also tend to treat people differently based on distinctions
of "wealth, power, or kinship." It should not be surprising, for
example, to find that the chief of a tribe will advance his own
interests "at the expense of lower-status people."
All of this
would be of academic interest only, were it not the case that the
modern environmental movement and many of our public policies are
based implicitly on the myth of the Noble Savage. The fountainhead
of modern environmentalism is Rachel Carson's Silent
Spring. The first sentence in Silent Spring invoked
the Noble Savage by claiming "there was once a town in the heart
of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings."
But the town Carson described did not exist, and her polemic, Silent
Spring, introduced us to environmental alarmism based on junk
science. As the years passed, Rachel Carson was elevated to sainthood
and the template laid for endless spasms of hysterical fear-mongering,
from the population bomb, to nuclear winter, the Alar scare, and
have not, can not, and never will live in harmony with nature. Our
prosperity and health depend on technology driven by energy. We
exercise our intelligence to command nature, and were admonished
by Francis Bacon to exercise our dominion with "sound reason and
true religion." When we are told that our primary energy source,
oil, is "making us sick," or that we are "addicted" to oil, these
are only the latest examples of otherwise rational persons descending
into gibberish after swooning to the lure of the Noble Savage. This
ignorant exultation of the primitive can only lead us back to the
Deming [send him mail] is
associate professor of arts and sciences at the University of Oklahoma.
His book, Black
& White: Politically Incorrect Essays on Politics, Culture,
Science, Religion, Energy and Environment, is available for
purchase on Amazon.com.
© 2012 by LewRockwell.com. Permission to reprint in whole or in
part is gladly granted, provided full credit is given.